Zenith’s History In Aviator’s Watches

New Watch! • 20 Feb 2017

Zenith’s History In Aviator’s Watches

by Frank Geelen

Zenith’s Pilot Type 20 collection of aviator’s timepieces didn’t come out of the blue. In fact, the brand has a rich and long pedigree in this specialised field of watches, dating back the early 20th century, back to the birth of aviation itself.

The Blériot Era and The Zenith Special
The history of Zenith Pilot’s watches began in 1909, when famous French aviator Louis Blériot became the first man to fly across the English Channel. Strapped on his wrist was a simple Zenith watch, marked “Special” on the dial and characterised by a chrome-plated case with fixed lugs, a black enamel dial with large Arabic numerals (with a distinct font), cathedral hands and a large onion-shaped crown. Blériot, in a subsequent letter addressed to Zenith, wrote, “I am extremely satisfied with the Zenith watch, which I use regularly.”

Bleriot’s watch was typical of the pilot’s watches made by many brands in that era, from the 1920s to the 1930s. Yet, all the features of this watch will sound familiar to collectors today, as the original forms the inspiration for the modern day Zenith Pilot Type 20.

Zenith Pilot watch Louis Bleriot


The Zenith Montre d’Aéronef Type 20
Zenith quickly capitalized on this association with an array of cockpit instruments, specifically the Type 20 montre d’aéronef (“aircraft clock”) of 1939 – the timepiece upon which the modern Zenith Pilot Type 20 wristwatch is partly based.

These cockpit clocks, again linked to French aviation, were fitted on the instrument panel of an aircraft, being found in many French aircraft used during WWII. We again see the trademark cathedral hands, mounted on a high contrast black dial with Gothic-font Arabic numerals. And quite notably, the knurled bezel was used to wind and set the watch.

Zenith Type 20 Montre d'Aeronef Type 20


The Modern Zenith Pilot Type 20 collection
Zenith stopped manufacturing aviator’s watches in the 1960s – with the exception of the Cairelli chronograph, explained further down – to concentrate on racing-oriented chronographs. Yet, the brand remembered its aviation pedigree and returned to the game with pilot’s watches in the early 2010s.

Zenith Pilot Montre d'Aeronef Type 20 2012

The most notable modern pilot’s watch is the Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 of 2012, a future collector’s item, even a gimmick to some observers. It boasts a 57.5mm case that houses a movement originally designed for deck chronometer pocket watches used on ships, explaining the enormous size.

Apart from this very exclusive edition, Zenith created an entire collection of watches, all based on iconic design elements of Blériot’s watch and Type 20 clocks. We find back the same cathedral hands, the legible black dial with Arabic numerals, as well as a case and crown that recall Blériot’s timepiece.

The Zenith Pilot Type 20 Collection now includes GMT models (48mm), chronographs based on the iconic El Primero, 3-hand “Extra-Special” versions that tell only the time (even including a model with a 45mm Bronze case), and a smaller 40mm version with small second for ladies. Despite the diversity of the range, all these watches are faithful to the brand’s heritage in aviator’s watches.

Zenith Pilot Type 20 GMT


The A. Cairelli “Tipo CP-2”
The story of Zenith and Pilot watches doesn’t only encompass the Pilot Type 20 watches. In the early 1960s, A. Cairelli, a Rome-based watch retailer, contracted Zenith to supply pilot’s chronographs to the Italian military.

The A. Cairelli “Tipo CP-2” chronographs (equipped with hand-wound calibre 146 DP) were typical of the military watches made for pilots: black dial, luminous numerals, high legibility and scaled bezel for calculations. The Cairelli watches were especially large for that time, being 43mm in diameter while the average gentleman’s watch of the era was only 35mm. Only 2500 Cairelli chronographs were produced, and were used by various arms of the Italian military until the early 1980s.

Zenith A. Cairelli

Just last year Zenith introduced the Heritage Cronometro Tipo CP-2 “Cairelli”, a remake of the 1960s original. Design-wise, the 2016 versions are very close to the original, with near identical dial, hands, and numbers, identically sized at 43mm and fitted with a bidirectional rotating bezel. The only change, a significant one at that, is the movement, which is now an automatic El Primero 4069, the signature high-frequency chronograph movement synonymous with Zenith.

Zenith Heritage Cronometro Tipo


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